Is it possible to read editions of Amharic texts? An experiment

In my last post I mentioned how the Life of St Garima in Ethiopian was printed by Rossini, but without a translation.  In fact it has never been translated into any modern language, to my knowledge.  I don’t know any Ethiopian, and I doubt that I ever will.

But we live in an age of wonders, when it comes to unfamiliar languages.

So… is it possible to work with Ethiopian language editions, even if you know no Ethiopian?  What about Google Translate?  Ethiopian is in this heavy unfamiliar script.  Is there OCR for this?  If you can scan Rossini’s edition, can you pop it into Google Translate and get the English?

There are two sorts of Ethiopian out there, I know.  There is Ge`ez, or classical Ethiopian; and there is Amharic, the modern dialect.  Rossini printed his text from a 19th century manuscript.  So it seems likely that this is in Amharic.

A quick Google confirmed; Google Translate knows Amharic!  A bit of googling found me an Amharic news website online, here.  I’m using Chrome, so all I had to do was right-click anywhere and select “Translate to English” and the whole website was rendered into some sort of English.  And… it worked!!  Yay me!  It’s obviously not 100%, but it’s way better than 0%!

So what about OCR?  I was sad to see that Abbyy Finereader apparently doesn’t support Amharic.  That’s a blow.  It was developed originally to handle Cyrillic, so it certainly has the capability.  But it’s not offered.  Drat.

A bit of googling brought me to a dubious-looking website here, claiming to offer a selection of tools which could do Amharic OCR.  The prose felt a bit machine-generated, so I worried that it was bunk, or worse, a malicious site.  But the first option was… Google Drive.

I never knew this, but seems that, if you upload a PDF containing an image of text, and then open it in Drive as a Google Docs document, it OCR’s the content.

Well, I thought, let’s give it a try.  So I extracted the first page of Rossini’s edition, using Adobe Acrobat Pro 9 – no flashy latest-edition stuff going on here!  Here’s a pic:

Then I uploaded it, and opened as a Google document.  And … it just treated the Amharic as an image.  Dang!  But I noticed that it did indeed OCR the Italian at the top of the page!

This is supposed to work.  So I thought maybe I should work over the image a bit.  I imported the one-page PDF into Abbyy Finereader 15, and chopped off the Italian at the top, and the critical apparatus at the bottom.  I then used the image editor in Finereader to “whiten the background”.  This can be flaky, but this time it worked fine, and I got a pure white background.   And I got this:

(I’ve just seen the marginal notes, which I need to chop off as well, so I’ll have to go round the loop again)

I exported the image as a PNG, and I used Acrobat again to create a PDF from the image.  Then I uploaded the new PDF to Google Drive, and opened it as a Google Docs document.  And… it worked!  Sort of…

በስመ : አብ : ወወልድ ‘ ወመንፈስ ፡ ቅዱስ ፡ ፩ ፡ አምላከ ፡ ላዕሌሁ ፡ ተወ ከልኩ፡ ወቦቱ ፡ አመንኩ ፡ እስከ ፡ ላዓለመ ፡ ዓለም ፡ አሜን ።

ድርሳን ፡ ዘደረሰ ፡ ቅዱስ ፡ ዮሐንስ ፡ ኤጲስ ፡ ቆጶስ ፡ ዘአክሱም o ፡ በእንተ ዕበዩ ፡ ወክብሩ ፡ ለቅዱስ ፡ ይስሓቅ = ወይቤ ፤ ስምዑ ‘ ወልብዉ ፡ ኦአኀውየ 5 ፍቁራንየ ፡ ዘእነግረከሙ ። ርኢኩ ፡ ብእሲተ ፡ እንዘ ፡ ይዘብጥዋ ፡ ዕራቃ ወእንዘ ፡ ይሀርፉ ፡ ላዕሌሃ ፡ ወላዕለ ፡ እግዝእትነ ፡ ማርያም ፡ እንዘ ፡ ይብሉ በእንተ ፡ ወልዳ ፡ ክርስቶስ ፤ እምብእሲት ፡ ኪያሁ : ኢተወልደ ፣ ይብሉ ፡ እላ ፡ ኢየአምኑ ፡ በክርስቶስ = ወኮንኩ ፡ እንዘ ፡ እረውጽ ፡ ወአኀዝኩ እስዐም ፡ ታሕተ ፡ እገሪሃ ፡ ለይእቲ ፡ ብእሲት ፡ እንዘ ፡ ትብል ፤ እወ ▪በዝ ፡ አንቀጽ ፡ ወፅአ ፡ ንጉሠ ፡ ሰማያት ፡ ወምድር ። ወሶበ ፡ ትብል፡ ከሙዝ ፡ ወ

That’s… rather astonishing.  No idea what all that is, but it looks sort of right.  Let’s bear in mind that Rossini printed his edition in 1897.  This is not a modern typeface.  So this is rather good.

Next step was to paste it into Google Translate.  It set it to auto-detect the language, and pasted in the first bit.  And… it worked.  In fact it gave a really useful transcription into Roman letters as well, which makes it a LOT easier to manipulate the text.

OK, I’m cheating slightly.  The first time I uploaded, the translation ended at “Spirit”.  But this is a Google Translate bug – it sometimes omits the remainder of a sentence.  If you split the text with a line feed, you often get the rest.  And that’s what I did.  I worked out by experiment where I needed to be, and then I got the above.

I don’t quite believe the translation of the second sentence either.  I suspect I need to play with this a bit to work out what each word is.

I notice all those colons between every word.  It might help if I actually looked up the script online!

But I think you’ll agree that this is quite marvellous – I, who know absolutely nothing about the language, am getting something useful out!



An Ethiopic Legend: Abba Garima copied the Bible in a Single Day

Here’s an interesting one, which I came across today.  There is an early set of gospels in Ethiopia, at the Abuna Garima monastery in Ethiopia’s Tigrai Highlands.  An article in the Independent 6 July 2010 by Jerome Taylor tells us:

The monks have their own legend about how the gospels came into their possession. They believe they were written by Abba Garima, a Byzantine royal who arrived in what was then the kingdom of Axum in 494 and went on to found the monastery. According to the monks, Abba Garima finished his exquisite work in a single day because God stopped the sun from setting while he worked.

This claim is repeated in many places, often based on Wikipedia’s wording, which references the Independent article:

According to tradition, Abba Garima wrote and illustrated the complete Gospels in a single day: God stopped the sun from setting until the Saint completed his work.

“Tradition” is a weasel word.  We have no traditions, not in the modern age, handed down from father to son orally.  What we have are books.  So whenever we see “tradition” mentioned, we need to ask what the literary source is.

Fortunately information is not far to seek.  In Judith McKenzie and Francis Watson, The Garima GospelsEarly Illuminated Gospel Books from Ethiopia, Oxford (2016), (preview here), we find the following statement, p. ix, n.25:

23 There is a tradition that while Abba Garima was copying the Gospels, God stopped the sun so that he might complete the task in a single day (Heldman 1993: 129). This incident is not included in Carlo Conti Rossini’s edition of the text, where it is reported instead that, while he began the task, angels completed the work for him in four hours (Conti Rossini 1897: 161-62). There is, however, an illustrated manuscript at the monastery showing in a single miniature Abba Garima copying the Gospel below both a full and a setting sun, under the inscription “As Abba Garima wrote the Gospel in the land of Atäret” (fig 20 here). Atäret is one of the places said to have been granted to the monastery by Gabra Masqäl (A. Bausi, “Ǝnda Abba Garima,“ EAE 2: 284:. I am grateful to Denis Nosnitsin and Nafisa Valieva for their assistance in the identification of this story.

– M. Heldman, “The Heritage of Late Antiquity,” in: R. Grierson (ed), African Zion: The Sacred Art of Ethiopia, (1993), pp. 117-32, esp. 129-30.
– C. Conti Rossini, “L’omilia di Yohannes, vescovo d’Aksum in onore di Garimâ,” in: Actes du Onzième Congrès des Orientalistes. Paris – 1897. Quatrième section. Hébreu – Phénicien – Aramée – Éthiopien – Assyrien, Paris (1898), pp. 139–177.

The Garima Gospels: Early Illuminated Gospel Books from Ethiopia, p.18, fig.20.

I was only able to access the preview, but this extraordinarily interesting book must be the source for what appears online.  But let’s look deeper into the references.

The Heldman reference is as follows:

According to tradition, the monastery from which this manuscript [=Abba Garima Gospels I] takes its name was founded by Isaac, also known as Abba Garima, one of the Nine Saints who came to Ethiopia from the Roman Empire in the late fifth century. Monks of Abba Garima’s monastery reported to Donald Davies that Abba Garima himself had copied this manuscript, and that he had completed the task in a single day. God stopped the sun’s course one afternoon so that Abba Garima could finish copying his Gospels before night fell.[1]

  1.  Conversation between the author and Donald Davies, 1986.

So the story is circulating in just this form in Ethiopia currently.

The Rossini “section 4” is at Gallica here.  The article turns out to be the publication of a text in Ethiopic, the Gadla Abba Garima, called by Rossini the “Homily of Yohannes, bishop of Axum, in honour of Garima.” He printed it from a manuscript in the French National Library (A = Paris BNF et. 132, 19th c.) and one in Berlin (= B, with an impenetrable shelfmark, 16th c.).  The oldest MS is 15th century.  “Yohannes” is of course John, and a bishop of that name did arrive in Ethiopia from Egypt around 1439.[1]

Unfortunately the homily is given without translation (!).  The best the editor could do was to give a summary of what it says.  Basically Abba Garima was a Byzantine prince named Isaac, who came to Ethiopia and took the name of Garima, and is one of the Nine Saints who appear in Ethiopian literature in the 14-15th century and are unknown before then.[2]

I’ve run Rossini’s summary over into English.  Rossini states:

Here is a brief summary of the narration contained in the homily:

And then we get this:

After years of historic marriage, Masfyânos, king of Rome, and Sefengyà, his pious wife, have a son, Yeshâq, «whose name means “pearl”»; while the patriarch is baptizing him, a great supernatural light foretells his future glories (v. 14-36.) — At the age of twelve the child is sent to school, where he progresses rapidly: still growing up, his parents would like to give him a wife, but a celestial vision distracts them (v. 36-48).— With the death of Masfyânos, reluctant Yeshâq is placed on the throne. After seven years of peaceful reign, he secretly flees to Ethiopia, called there by a letter from the saint Pantalêwon of Somâ`t: the angel Gabriel transports him there in four days, while the messengers of Pantalêwon take ten months to return and four days. There Yeshâq received the monastic habit from Pantalêwon, and he remained with his teacher for a year (v. 48-108) — Then, having heard of his departure, Liqânos of Constantinople, Yem`atâ of Qosyât, Schmâ of Antioch, Gubâ of Cilicia, Afsê of Asia, Malâ` of Romyâ, and `Os of Caesarea also went to Ethiopia, and with great abstinence, and in great holiness, live in the same house with Pantalêwon and Yeshâq (v. 108-122). — While they are like this, a governor of Aksum announces to them how the country is dominated by a huge snake, Arwè, venerated as a God, and to which, in addition to infinite animals, a girl is given daily: assured of the fact thanks by sending of Yeshâq and `Os, who was very frightened at the sight of the monster, the nine saints with great prayers obtain from God the death of the serpent (v. 123-284). — Then Ethiopia is filled with tumults and disorders; until God, seeing the righteousness of the faith of that land, and hearing the prayers of the saints, invoking a king of David’s lineage, places Kâlêb on the throne. (v. 285-288). —  After thirteen years, and many prodigies performed by them, a poor monk, Melkyânos, joins them, whose humility they despise; whereupon, to punish them, God takes away from them a mysterious face, which used to come down to illuminate their meals. Having obtained the pardon of this, the saints divided, and Yeshâq retired to Madarâ (v. 288-309). — There he performs great miracles: he frees a possessed person, heals a woman who has been suffering for thirty years from an uninterrupted flow of blood, etc., etc.

At the same time he is made head of the priests of Madarâ (v. 310-345). — One day, he sows a grain of wheat: in a short time this germinates, grows, produces a very rich harvest, which the saint distributes to the poor (v. 346-355). — Another day, having ceased writing in order to pray, the angels, who always served him, copy for him the gospel and his interpretation of it (v. 356-360). — Heals a girl invaded by an evil spirit (v. 360-442). — Visited by two monks, he feeds them, but puts away his portion, whereupon, a little later, invited, he celebrates the Eucharistic sacrifice, for which, his companions not knowing that he was still fasting, he is accused to Pantalêwon. The latter calls him to an interview, and, having met, he invites him, in order to be able to take him back in secret, to have his companions leave: «not only men, but let the trees of the wood and the stones move away from us!» exclaims Yeshâq: the trees and the stones obey, so, recognizing his innocence, Pantalêwon shouts: «Garamkani, you have amazed me!» and from this Yeshâq takes the name of Garimâ (v. 443-491). — Returning to the convent, one day Garimâ stops the sun to be able to fulfill his prayers (v. 492-496). —  The donkey that used to serve him and bring him the gospel and food having died, he mourns him bitterly (v. 497-507). — After writing under a tree and having spat on a large stone, he makes a healthy spring gush forth (v. 507-511). — Having come across a village that does not observe Sunday rest, he scolds them, is badly beaten, and launches terrible curses against it (v. 512-527)» — King Gabra Masqal, hearing the saint’s wonders, visits him in Modani or Bèta Masqal, receives his blessing, has a church erected there in honour of the saint, and to this and to the convent of Garimâ he donates the land of Tâfâ, `Adwâ, Mesâh(?), Sebe`ito(?), and Maya Lehekuet (v. 528-556). —  One time the saint sows a grape: immediately it germinates, and he draws the juice for the mass. Gathered around him many men, he gives rules and precepts for the community (v. 557-665). —  Having descended into the heart of the mountain, he causes a wonderfully healthy spring to gush from it (v. 566-569). — When his pen falls while he is writing, it becomes a plant (v. 569-571). — Informed of all this, the king gives him the land of Atarêt and seven other cities (v. 571-575). —  The saint, while going with Yem’âtâ, stops a large boulder, which Satan rolls against him to kill him, meets one last time with Pantalêwon, by whom he is comforted for the beatings given to him by the violators of Sunday rest (v. 576-592). — And finally, warned by God of his imminent end, he obtains from Him great promises for those who venerate him, bids farewell to his brothers and disappears on the 17th of the month of Sene (v. 593-640). — One of his disciples then has a vision of future painful events in the locality sanctified by Garimâ, where a wicked people will settle (v. 641-645).[3]

It is a pity that we do not have a translation of pp.161-2, because the summary does NOT give us the story as Judith McKenzie summarises it.  I expect that Dr. McKenzie is correct.  But note how this 15th century text has two episodes that each have part of the story, rather than just one?  This suggests that the narrative we have today was assembled somewhere since this text was written.  Hagiography is often revised over time.

I was unable to discover whether any of the Lives of the Nine Saints have been translated into any western language.  If not, this is rather a shame.  The Life of Garima is 23 pages; surely not beyond the powers of any native English speaker who knows Ethiopian?  Is there anybody out there?

  1. [1]Or so I gather from a rather marvellous article: Stuart Munro-Hay, “Saintly Shadows”, in: Walter Raunig, Steffen Wenig (edd.), Afrikas Horn, Series: Meroitica 22, Otto Harrassowitz Verlag, (2005) 137-168; p. 162 (preview here).
  2. [2]Stuart Munro-Hay, p.140.
  3. [3]

    Ecco un breve compendio della narrazione, contenuta nell’ omilia :

    Dopo anni di storile matrimonio, Masfyânos, re di Roma, e Sefengyà, piissima sua moglie, hanno un figlio , Yeshâq, «il cui nome significa mar­garita»; mentre il patriarca lo battezza, una grande luce soprannanaturale ne preannuncia le future glorie (v. 14-36.) — A dodici anni il fan­ciotto è mandalo a scuola, ove rapidamente progredisce: cresciuto ancora, i suoi genitori vorrebbero dargli moglie, ma una visione celeste ne li dis­toglie (v. 36-48).— Morto Masfyânos, Yeshâq riluttante è posto sul trono. Dopo selle anni di pacifico regno, fugge di nascosto in Etiopia, chiama­tovi da una lettera del santo Pantalêwon di Somâ`t: l’angelo Gabriele ve lo trasporta in quattro giorni, mentre i messi di Pantalêwon impiegano nel ritorno dieci mesi e quattro giorni. Colà Yeshâq receve da Pantalêwon l’abito monacale, e col suo maestro rimane un anno (v. 48-108) — Allora, avuta notìzia della sua andata, passano in Etiopia anche Liqânos di Costantinopoli, Yem`atâ di Qosyât, Schmâ di Antiochia, Gubâ della Cilicia, Afsê dell’ Asia, Malâ` di Romyâ, `Os di Cesarea, e con grandi astinenze, e in grande santità vivono in una sola casa con Pantalêwon e Yeshâq (v. 108-122). — Mentre così stanno, un governatore di Aksum annuncia loro come il paese sia dominato da un immane serpente, Arwè, venerato come un Dio, e in pasto al quale, oltre a infiniti animali, si dà giornalmente una fanciulla: sinceratisi del fatto mercè l’invio di Yeshâq e di `Os, il quale ultimo assai si spaventa alla vista dei mostro, i nove santi con grandi preghiere ottengono da Dio la morie del serpente (v. 123-284). — L’Etiopia allora si empie di tumulti e di disordini; sino a che Dio, vedendo la rettitudine della fede di quella terra, ed esau­dendo le preci dei santi, invocanti un re della stirpe di Davide, pone sul trono Kâlêb. (v. 285-288). — Dopo tredici anni, e compiuti da loro nu­merosi prodigi, un povero monaco, Melkyânos, si unisce ad essi, i quali ne vilipendono l’umiltà; onde, per punirli, Dio lor toglie una face mis­teriosa, che soleva scendere a illuminarne i pasti. Ottenuto di ciò il per­dono, i santi dividonsi, e Yeshâq ritirasi in Madarâ (v. 288-309). — Ivi egli compie grandi miracoli: libera un ossesso, guarisce una donna, da trenta anni sofferente per ininterrotto flusso di sangue, ecc., ecc.

    Intanto, è fatto capo dei sacerdoti di Madarâ (v. 310-345). — Un gior­no, egli semina un acino di grano: in breve ora questo germina, cresce, produce una ricchissima messe, che tutta il santo distribuisce ai poveri (v. 346-355). — Un altro giorno, avendo cessato di scrivere per pregare, gli angeli, che sempre lo servivano, gli copiano l’evangelo e la sua in­terpretazione (v. 356-360). — Sana una fanciulla invasa dallo spirito ma­ligno (v. 360-442). — Visitato da due monaci, egli dà loro da mangiare, ma ripone la sua parte, onde, poco di poi, invitato, celebra il sacrifizio eucaristico, di che, ignorandosi dai suoi compagni com’ egli si conservasse digiuno, è accusato presso Pantalêwon. Questi lo chiama a colloquio, e, incontratolo, lo invita, per poterlo riprendere in segreto, a far allontanare i suoi compagni: «non gli uomini soltanto, ma gli alberi del bosco e le pietre si scostino da noi!» esclama Yeshâq: gli alberi e le pietre obbe­discono, onde, riconosciuta l’innocenza, Pantalêwon grida: «Garamkani, mi hai stupito!» e da ciò Yeshâq trae il nome di Garimâ (v. 443-491). — Tornato al convento, un dì Garimâ ferma il sole per poter compiere le sue preghiere (v. 492-496). — Essendo morto l’asino che soleva ser­virlo e portargli l’evangelo ed il cibo, lo piange amaramente (v. 497- 507). — Stando a scrivere sotto un albero e avendo sputato su un gran sasso, ne fa sgorgare una fonte salutare (v. 507-511). — Imbattutosi in un villaggio che non osserva il riposo domenicale, lo redarguisce, è in malo modo percosso, e contro di esso lancia terribili maledizioni (v. 512- 527)» — Il re Gabra Masqal, intesi i prodigi del santo, lo visita in Modani o Bèta Masqal, ne riceve la benedizione, fa in onore del santo colà erigere una chiesa, e a questa ed al convento di Garimâ dona la terra di Tâfâ, ‘Adwâ, Mesâh(?), Sebe`ito(?), Maya Lehekuet (v. 528-556). — Una volta il santo semina un acino d’uva: subito questo germina, ed egli ne trae il succo per la messa. Adunatisi intorno a lui molti uomini, egli dà regole e precetti per la comunità (v. 557-665). — Sceso nel cuor del monte, fa da esso zampillare una fonte mirabilmente salutare (v. 566- 569). — Cadutagli la penna mentre sta scrivendo, essa diviene una pianta (v. 569-571). — Informato di tutto ciò, il re gli dona la terra d’Atarêt ed altre sette città (v. 571-575). — Il santo, mentre va con Yem’âtâ, ferma un grande macigno, che Satana, per ucciderlo, gli roto­lava contro, incontrasi un’ultima volta con Pantalêwon, dal quale e confortato per le percosse dategli dai violatori del riposo domenicale (v. 576-592). — Ed infine, avvertito da Dio della prossima sua fine, e ottenute da Lui grandi promesse per quelli che lo venereranno, sa­luta i suoi fratelli e scompare al 17 del mese di sanê (v. 593-640). — Un suo discepolo ha, poscia, una visione circa futuri dolorosi eventi della località santificata da Garimâ, ove si stabilirâ un popolo malvagio (v. 641-645).

Materials for the study of the Ethiopian version of the history of al-Makin

The Arabic Christian historians are largely unknown.  Starting in the 9th century, the main ones are Agapius, Eutychius, al-Makin, Bar Hebraeus, and one whom I always forget.

Al-Makin wrote in the 13th century, and contains a version of the Testimonium Flavianum of Josephus, which appears in Shlomo Pines’ much-read but much-misunderstood paper on the subject.  But anyone wishing to consult the text of al-Makin, in Arabic, must find a manuscript; no printed edition exists.  I did attempt to do something about this, a few years ago, but in vain.

Al-Makin, like other Arabic texts, was translated into Ethiopian.  A correspondent writes to tell me about some sources for the Ethiopian version.

Firstly, an article on translation technique from Arabic to Ethiopic,  “Arabisch-äthiopische Übersetzungstechnik am Beispiel der Zena Ayhud (Yosippon) und des Tarika Walda-‘Amid” (i.e. “Arabic-Ethiopian translation techniques using the example of Zena Ayhud (Yosippon) and Tarika Walda-Amid”) by Manfred Kropp, with al-Makin as one of the examples, in the ZDMG, is now online in high resolution here.  In Ethiopian chronicles Al-Makin is known as Giyorgis Walda-Amid (George, son of Amid) while Tarika Walda-Amid (Chronicle of Walda-Amid) is the title given to his “Blessed Collection”.

Kropp has also published a book, Zekra Nagar – Die universalhistorische Einleitung nach Giyorgis Wala-Amid in der Chronikensammlung des Haylu aka (The preface to the Universal History of Giyorgis Walda-Amid in the Chronicle Collection of Haylu” – Haylu was an 18th c. Ethiopian prince).  There is a Google Books preview here.

Modern Ethiopians speak Amharic, not Classical Ethiopic or Ge’ez.  I learn that Prof. Sirgiw Gelaw from Addis Ababa University has prepared a translation of the Ge’ez version of Al-Makin into Amharic.  The manuscript is 560 pages long and is still waiting publication.

A manuscript copy of the Ethiopian version of the first part of Al-Makin – he divides his work into two parts, pre-Islam and post – is actually online at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, here.  The catalogue entry is here.

My thanks to Ezio for all this material!


Ethiopian biblical commentaries — the Amharic “Andemta commentary”

In Amharic, the main biblical commentary is known as the Andemta commentary.  This is divided into four sections, which cover the Old Testament, the New Testament, Patristic works, and Monastic canons and texts.[1]

The Andemta commentary is an explanation in Amharic of passages in the Ethiopian biblical, patristic and liturgical books, themselves written in Geez.  The commentary does discuss textual variants and emendations, showing that the authors are aware of scribal issues.  The Geez OT is based on the Septuagint, rather than the Hebrew text.[2]

The commentary is little known in the West.  Manuscripts are uncommon.  The late Roger Cowley (d. 1988) worked in Ethiopia for 15 years, and managed to amass copies of the entire collection, which he bequeathed to the British Library.  He encountered great difficulty even in identifying manuscripts.[3]  However the Andemta commentary has now at least been printed for a number of books of the bible; Psalms, the 5 books of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, Ezekiel, the 4 gospels, Acts, the letters of Paul, the Catholic letters, and Revelation.[4]

Cowley does refer to the commentary on Philoxenus (of Mabbug) in the Andemta commentary in his own book on Ethiopian Biblical Interpretation, but otherwise I have been unable to find anything on the subject of the patristic commentaries.

  1. [1]British Library Endangered Archives project 336, here. “This project aims to digitise the andemta (Ge’ez – Amharic commentary) manuscripts of biblical and patristic commentaries made according to the lay bet exegetical tradition. The formerly famous exegetical school of thought known as lay bet has survived only in the much endangered codices which are kept mostly in private and in rare monastic collections in Eastern Gojjam and Southern Gondar regions, Ethiopia. The material includes 70-75 codices which cover the Ge’ez – Amharic commentary of the four sections of Ethiopian Exegesis: Old Testament, New Testament, Patristic Works and Monastic Canons & Writings.”
  2. [2]K. Stoffregen-Pedersen, Traditional Ethiopian exegesis of the book of Psalms, 1995, p.5
  3. [3]K. Stoffregen-Pedersen, Traditional Ethiopian exegesis of the book of Psalms, 1995, p.2
  4. [4]K. Stoffregen-Pedersen, p.3.

More on the Ge`ez version of the Coptic-Arabic gospel catena

It has taken some time since I wrote this initial article, but I am finally in a position to say somewhat more.

The Gospel problems and solutions by Eusebius was used by the compiler of a now lost Greek catena commentary.  This catena was translated into Coptic (De Lagarde published it) and the Coptic into Arabic. 

The Arabic version then seems to have furnished material for a composition in Ethiopian, in Ge`ez, to be specific.

The Geez adaptation of the Coptic-Arabic gospel catena gives the name of the magi’s ancestor as Zaradas, and continues with the information tabulated below [15]: …

15. The text I have primarily used is B.L. Add. 16220, fol. 10b-11a; EMML 2088 fol. 9a-b has only minor differences.[1]

The source for this is the mess that is Roger Cowley’s Ethiopian Biblical Interpretation, where Cambridge University Press declined to do more than reproduce the typescript.  The book is full of great scholarship, but, as here, subjects are raised without any introduction, on the assumption that everyone will know about this Ge`ez text.  In this case Cowley is investigating the sources for a passage in the Amharic “Andemta commentary”, discussing the Magi, and doing so with great intelligence and learning, but, unfortunately, little concern for the reader.

“BL” is of course the British Library; “EMML” is the “Ethiopian Manuscript Microfilm Library (see 7.2 under W. Macomber and Getatchew Haile)”, which doesn’t take us a  huge distance forward.  It is a reasonable inference from Cowley’s careless remarks that these are two manuscripts of this Geez text.

The British Library is a major research library, so of course its website is useless to the researcher and its catalogues must be found elsewhere.  What else do we expect, in return for our taxes?  I found this information on Add. 16220:

The Manuscripts which here follow in the order of numbers, from No. 16,185 to No. 16,258 inclusive, are in the Ethiopic language, and were presented by the Church Missionary Society. They are all fully described in the “Catalogus Codicum Manuscriptorum Orientalium, qui in Museo Britannico asservantur. Pars III.” Published in 1847. Folio.

In the 160 years following, it seems, nothing more has been done.  The British Library, lazily, has not even troubled to place these paper catalogues online as PDFs.  Thankfully Google Books has it.  But even then, the volume is not organised by shelfmark, nor is there an index.  Dear me, no.  Fortunately Google again rescued me, and I find the item on p.10-11, as “ms. XI.”

It is a catena on Matthew, on f.9-46, preceded by 8 leaves of paschal tables.  Named as being referenced ubique (everywhere) are: John Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria, Severus of Antioch, Gregory Nazianzen, Basil the Great, Clement of Rome, Athanasius, Benjamin, Epiphanius, Simon Eremita, Litus, Ausonius, Justus. 

Sadly there is no mention of Eusebius.  But I do not trust catalogues on such things, of course.

Ms. XII is also a catena on Matthew, I notice.

I suppose it is futile to wish that this Ethiopic catena — just 37 leaves — was edited and translated?

  1. [1]R. Cowley, Ethiopian biblical interpretation, p.49.

Field research on manuscripts and monasteries in Ethiopia

Via the EthiopianLit list, I receive this intriguing announcement of a talk at Princeton University in March, which I would certainly go to, if I could.

Nobody has any idea what exists in Ethiopic.   There’s gold out there, you know?

Preserving the African Archive: Field Research on Early Manuscripts and Monasteries in Northern Ethiopia

Denis Nosnitsin, University of Hamburg
March 27, 2012 4:30 pm
127 East Pyne, Princeton University

Ethiopia has one Africa’s largest archives, with tens of thousands of written sources held in around 600 monasteries and 20,000 churches, some of which date to the early Middle Ages. Very little from these archives has received scholarly evaluation, with less than ten percent having been microfilmed or digitized and far fewer being researched or translated. A great part of this unique heritage is on the verge of extinction and urgent action needs to be taken to save it from complete disappearance.

In this talk, Dr. Nosnitsin will present information about his innovative project Ethio-Spare based at Hamburg University, funded by a European Research Council Starting Grant, and focused on digitizing the most important monastic libraries and archives in Ethiopia and creating searchable databases that will allow quantitative and qualitative research into Ethiopian literature. He will then present his own historical and philological research on two of the more important Ethiopian hagiographies. For more information, contact Wendy Laura Belcher

Dr. Denis Nosnitsin, a research fellow at Hamburg University, is an expert in African literatures, especially that in Ge`ez (Ethiopic), Amharic, and Tigrigna, as well as in the pre-modern history of the region. He is the principal investigator of the project Ethio-SPARE. His current research is on Ethiopian hagiography and historiography, monastic manuscript collections and Ethiopian Christian manuscript culture, and historical analysis of marginal notes and documents in Ethiopian manuscripts. His  degree in African (Ethiopian) philology is from St. Petersburg State University. He has published in Aethiopica, Orientalia Christiana Periodica, Scrinium, and Africana Bulletin. For more information, see 


Coptic-Arabic gospel catena also known in Ge`ez?

This evening I found the following snippet in Google Books, given as in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1989, p.380:

… Ethiopia’s access to foreign commentaries (including that of Iso’dad of Merv and the other Syrian scholars) is through the Geez version of Ibn at-Taiyib’s exegetica and the Geez adaptation of Coptic-Arabic Catena….

Now call me daft, but this sounds as if the Coptic gospel catena published by De Lagarde, which was translated into Arabic, was then onward translated into Ethiopic, or more precisely Ge`ez.  And that someone out there knows this.  It’s in a book review of some kind.

Unfortunately I have no access to the article in which this appears.  Poking around the website for the JRAS of 1989, p.380 belongs to Michael Loewe, of “East Asian civilizations: a dialogue in five stages. By Wm. Theodore de Bary. (The Edwin O. Reischauer Lectures, 1986.) pp. xi, 160. Cambridge, Mass, and London, Harvard University Press, 1988. £15.95.”  That doesn’t sound right, nor does the abstract look right.  Cambridge University Press greedily demand 20 GBP to access the article, the swine. 

Wish I could find the article.  Anyone got any ideas?

UPDATE: I think the Google Books snippet must be in error in some way, probably in the page number?  I’ve found the book itself reviewed above, and it has nothing relevant in it.

UPDATE: Found it!  I took the snippet and pasted it into the general Google search, and up it came as a JSTOR review in JRAS 1990, p.379f.  The article is a review of Roger W. Cowley, Ethiopian Biblical Interpretation, CUP, 1988.  Now that sounds like an interesting book.  Amazon list it at a fantastic price, unfortunately.